It's not a question of if, but when will holography technology be available to the public?

Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)

It's easy to forget most of what computers do is present old media forms in more efficient ways, creating digital simulacra of typewritten pages, edited film, and recorded sound with hyper-efficiency. Yet access to these simulations remain limited by the frame of the computer monitor, be it a tablet touchscreen or a sumptuous desktop display. The last missing piece in the computer-driven transformation from object to simulated object is holography, with devices capable of creating a three-dimensional projection in the user's world where their swipes and strokes can act on it without ambiguity.

Last week a group of researchers at HP Labs revealed a prototype for a device capable of displaying "hologram-like" videos and still images. The screen creates the effect of an image hovering above its screen, which viewers can see from any angle they want by moving around it. The technology uses an LCD screen with directional grooves for each pixel on the screen so that the red, blue, and green light can be aimed in a particular direction. "A 3-D interface for a cell phone or laptop might display different windows next to each other, or architects could use a tablet to show a 3-D model to a customer, instead of building a physical model," David Fattal of HP Labs told Nature, "Or you might use a smart watch to view Google Maps in 3-D." 


The question of holography is less about what it will be like, and more about who will be the one to finally make it possible on a mass market scale.


Holography is peculiarly familiar for a speculative technology, something that's already been demonstrated in everything from Star Wars to CNN's 2010 election night coverage. While it might have been hard to imagine how the rotary phone in the living room would one day become a miniature computing device that everyone would carry around in their pants, the question of holography is less about what it will be like, and more about who will be the one to finally make it possible on a mass market scale. The price of creating a holographic Tupac Shakur for last year's Coachella was rumored to be between $100,000 and $400,000, and the company behind the technology later filed for bankruptcy. In 2011, researchers at the MIT Media Lab used Microsoft's Kinect cameras to capture 3D video footage and transmit it over the Internet to a crude holographic display, suggesting a sort of virtual 3D video chat.

Products like Kinect and the low cost of accelerometers and gyroscopes have already made digital interactions physical, and the relatively low cost have made them accessible to a wide range of consumers. Display add-ons like Occulus Rift and Nintendo's second screen Wii U, which lets you use its tablet controller as a portal that gives full 3D views of a simulated world when moved around, can be seen as workarounds trying to advance toward the ideal of holographic imagery without actually having the means to produce it.

The perpetual limit is 3D projection technology, which even in the best cases produces unreliably crude images that work best with simple geometric shapes and minimal motion. One of the challenges of holography is reconstructing a fully 3D object that requires the sewing together of 200 different images. While computers can interpolate an image's dimensional qualities, doing reasonable quality video chats would require at least a few different camera inputs to capture data.

Last year Apple filed several patents for different 3D display environments, including one built around 3D sensors that would detect the motion of a user’s hands and project them into the screen where they would interact directly with objects. Another patent covered a display device that bounced a projected image off a series of mirrors to produce a 3D image. In 2009 researchers at the University of Tokyo combined a simple hologram display with a haptic feedback system that allowed users to actually feel a physical sensation on their hands that corresponded with holographic raindrops falling onto them.

It will likely take years, and maybe decades before all of these speculative technical threads come together into something usable, and it will also bring up an inherent paradox in the evolution of technology. If the benefit of using computers is to add simplicity and efficiency to old technologies, will the emergence of holographic recreations of fully 3D objects return a significant amount of that complication and inefficiency by requiring interaction with the object? It may be that holography is the next natural step in interface design, building on the gestures and motion inputs that have become industry standards, but it might also be a way of maintaining some baseline of complication and difficulty in using them so that users feel there is still some productive purpose to their role as user, solving problems that only human ingenuity can address, complications which can seem perilously obscure when everything is reduced to a flat button icon sliding across a screen.